In his book The Vision of the Anointed, economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, Thomas Sowell, describes how the great catastrophes of history have typically resulted not only from ill-advised policies, but from the fact that public feedback cannot get through to decision-makers. He says, “Typically, there has been an additional and crucial ingredient – some method by which feedback from reality has been prevented, so that a dangerous course of action could be blindly continued to a fatal conclusion. Much of the continent of Europe was devastated in World War II because the totalitarian regime of the Nazis did not permit those who foresaw the self-destructive consequences of Hitler’s policies to alter, or even influence, those policies.”
As we look back over the first year of a National-led government there is no imminent catastrophic threat to New Zealand of the sort described by Thomas Sowell but there is a growing concern that this new government is no longer listening. On election night, John Key stated “Today across the country, New Zealanders have voted for a safer, more prosperous and more ambitious New Zealand. They voted for hope, they voted for action, and they voted for results. They voted for a better life for all New Zealanders.”
While those uplifting words no doubt remain the aspiration of most New Zealanders, it is now less certain whether the socialist constraints that have held us back during the nine long years of Labour’s rule will be removed.
Presently riding high in the polls, the National Party would do well to remember that inevitably the ‘Teflon’ falls off. When that happens the polls trend down and policy mistakes, especially those that rile public, usually come back to bite. And there are now a growing number of such policy mistakes. To name but four: the failure of the Prime Minister to respect the view of the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders in the smacking referendum; an astounding insensitivity to the country’s mounting concerns about racial issues; the cancellation of National’s major election promise of tax cuts; and the unprecedented bulldozing through of an economically disastrous – and totally unnecessary – emissions trading scheme.
It is worth putting National’s polling success into context. The September 2009 Colmar Brunton poll had National at 54 percent and Labour at 33 percent. Adding in the ratings of their support parties, the Maori Party and ACT both on 3 percent, puts the National-led Government on 60 percent. The Prime Minister comes in at a 50 percent approval rating with the Leader of the Opposition, Phil Goff, on 9 percent.
However, looking back to a time when the Labour Government was riding high in the polls, the June 2002 Colmar Brunton poll had Labour on 53 percent and National on 27 percent. When the Greens on 9 percent and the Progressives on 1.7 percent were included, the Labour-led Government had a poll rating of almost 64 percent. Helen Clark’s approval rating as PM at that time was at 52 percent, and while Bill English, as Leader of the Opposition gained a 17 percent approval rating, within three months he had slumped to 9 percent.
In other words, polling positions are fragile, and as National starts its second year in government, it would do well to start listening to the public and correct the major mistakes it has already made – while it still has the luxury of time.
It should start with reversing its position on the smacking referendum. John Key sold New Zealand short when he chose to ignore the views of the 1.4 million Kiwis who sent a message through the referendum that they want the government to butt out of their lives and stop telling them how to raise their children. The fact is the crisis of family disintegration in New Zealand is largely driven by government welfare policies. That means that any new policy that undermines the authority of parents – which is exactly what Sue Bradford’s law does – will only exacerbate the problem.
When it came to responding to the referendum, John Key had a choice. He could have respected the views of the majority of New Zealanders and reversed the new law. Instead he chose to support an agenda driven by one of the most radical socialist Parliamentarians that New Zealand has ever had.
In response to the public’s outrage over his decision to ignore the referendum result, John Key did what politicians in this position almost always do and launched an inquiry. That three-man team, made up of two government chief executives and one independent citizen is expected to report back at the end of this month. If you feel strongly that John Key should change the law, then my advice is to write to the Prime Minister – and his Caucus colleagues – to let him know your views. Governments are not stupid. If they find themselves on the wrong side of overwhelming public opinion, they have the option of adjusting their views – but only if, as Thomas Sowell pointed out, the feedback loop is clear and free from interference.
John Key has also greatly misjudged concern over race relations in New Zealand. The silent majority don’t speak out about it much in public anymore – the threat of racist slurs has put paid to free speech and open debate on this matter (except in such places as the NZCPR Forum where it is encouraged – see here). But John Key needs to remember what happened in 2004 when Don Brash tapped into that vein of public concern with his gutsy “Nationhood” speech. The National Party rose 20 points in the polls almost overnight.
Since that time, nothing has eased public concern – iconic assets like the National Library continue to be stripped from public ownership and offered to Maori as part of their Treaty settlements without any public consultation at all; huge unease exists that National might effectively legislate the foreshore and seabed into Maori hands; and there remains ongoing anxiety that John Key will back out of National’s long-standing promise to abolish the Maori seats because he values his premiership above the long-term good of the country.
In an in-depth article about the Prime Minister, the Herald’s political commentator John Armstrong stated that John Key is “extremely wary of breaching National’s 2008 manifesto. He believes it is vital that voters feel confident they can trust National in government”. If John Key really meant that, I wonder if he could explain why he cancelled the 2009 tax cuts. The tax cuts, which were arguably National’s central election promise, were promoted as being fully funded and safe from any deterioration of the public accounts. The promised tax cuts clearly fell victim to the government’s failure to get public sector spending under control. At a time when every family and business in New Zealand has been forced to tighten their belts and cut spending to match their incomes, the National Government has failed to follow suit. And while they will argue that cutting spending is not easy, that excuse does not wash – New Zealand’s history shows that the public support governments that take tough actions during difficult times: the Lange Labour Government was re-elected in 1987 despite introducing massive reforms to avert the 1984 financial crisis, and the Bolger Government was re-elected in 1993 despite the 1991 ‘Mother of all Budgets’.
So now we have the bizarre situation where National, instead of being the low tax government they promised, is on the verge of introducing at least two new taxes – some form of tax on property and a tax on carbon. And that brings me to the final of the four policy mistakes identified in this newsletter: the decision by John Key to rush through Parliament a totally unnecessary emissions trading scheme that contains complex transitional provisions designed to shield the public from the true cost of the legislation until after the next election!
One argument being used to justify this abuse of the Parliamentary system is that Labour’s emissions trading scheme, which is still sitting on the statute books, will come into force on the 1st of January next year. Simple – National should pass an amendment to either repeal it or further suspend it.
Secondly, National has used as justification for bulldozing this Bill through the House, the fact that an emissions trading scheme needs to be passed ahead of the United Nations climate change meeting in Copenhagen in December. However, New Zealand’s chief negotiator, has today confirmed what has been obvious for some time now – there will be no binding deal at Copenhagen: “We’re not going to get a full ratifiable treaty outcome … The big global comprehensive deal is not going to be finalised at Copenhagen – that’s pretty clear. This means that there is now no urgency and no earthly reason why New Zealand needs to be a world leader by being the only other country outside of the European Union to introduce an emissions trading scheme. This is a view held by those who want to see New Zealand’s economic performance improved. It is only left leaning organisations (and it seems Nick Smith) who want to see the socialist emissions trading scheme enacted.
National’s response to this news that there will be no binding treaty in December in Copenhagen will be a real test – if they truly believe in doing what’s good for the country they will slow down or better still abandon their emissions trading bill. If they push ahead, they will be accused of knowingly damaging the economy.
In line with the view of Thomas Sowell, former MP and Regional Councilor Gerry Eckhoff, believes that our political leaders are all too often afflicted by a condition called “Plato’s Conceit”. In this week’s Guest Commentary, Plato’s Conceipt, Gerry explains:
“A political system that allows the select few of the ruling elite to dominate the life of the ordinary person has come to be known as “Plato’s conceit”. Plato, the Greek philosopher, had a belief that the power or governance of a country should always be vested in the ‘guardians’ from the ruling class. “Ordinary” people were of no consequence. His perfect society was based on the masses agreeing to be ruled, but with such people having no understanding of the principles upon which they were to be governed. His system dominates much of the world’s political governance to this very day.
“The singular problem with Plato’s utopian ideal is that it doesn’t work …anywhere despite the “guardians” of many different hues decision to implement Plato’s design (by default) during the last 2000 years. That reality still does not stop our politicians as there has been an inextricable march in New Zealand towards the implementation of what is only a minor variation of “Plato’s conceit”.
“The petition to repeal the anti smacking law is also a current example of Plato’s conceit: We the Cabinet knows best – besides the petition was signed by…. ordinary people – who are unlikely to possess our ‘wisdom’. The controversy over the adding of an ‘h’ to Wanganui by the Geographic Board ‘guardians’, despite widespread opposition, is yet another recent example of Plato’s conceit.”
I will leave the last word to President Abraham Lincoln who described democracy as “government for the people, by the people, of the people”. This is an ideal that the new National Government might want to dwell on.
1.John key, Victory Speech
2.Don Brash, Nationhood
3.John Armstrong, National one year on: Key rewrites political rulebook
4.Radio NZ, Doubts climate deal will be finalised in Copenhagen